Was de Blasio’s Big Pre-K Win Scripted All Along?

By
All the world's a stage: Cuomo and De Blasio. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It seemed like brilliant screenwriting: Dueling Albany rallies, followed by an intense two-hour, closed-door meeting between the two battling antagonists. Surely this was a turning point in the pre-K narrative.

But as Mayor Bill de Blasio was being driven back down the Thruway that afternoon in early March, he shrugged. Nothing much had changed in his marathon conversation with Governor Andrew Cuomo, he told top City Hall aides — and he was sticking to the fundamental goal he'd set out way back in October, 2012, when nobody much was listening.

On Monday that steadiness pays off big for de Blasio. State legislators are expected to approve a new $138 billion state budget that will give the city $300 million a year to fund expanded prekindergarten classes. The mayor's tunnel vision in pursuing the proposal had a serious downside — he lost some control over charter schools — but the focused, methodical approach kept de Blasio from making costly mistakes. 

"The governor was trying to embarrass him the whole time, and the mayor never took the bait, never called Cuomo a liar on the money, because we weren't there to win a public relations battle," a de Blasio advisor says, referring to Cuomo's claim he'd issue a "blank check" for pre-K if the city showed it had a viable plan. "Getting into a war of words would have played into what the governor wanted."

It will take decades to assess the most significant results of this negotiation: The first kids to enroll in the new pre-K program this September won't graduate from high school until June 2028. And while there are some clear political winners already, even the victors took some blows. Yet the mild ending made the "battle" feel scripted and the drama overhyped. A preliminary review: 

The leading men

For de Blasio, raising taxes on the city's wealthy to expand educational programs for public school kids neatly encapsulated his "Tale of Two Cities" candidacy, along with de Blasio's call to reform stop-and-frisk. The idea looked tailored to gain the teachers union endorsement, which it didn't, but it sure helped de Blasio win the election.

Similarly, the tax hike was tabled, but it provided useful leverage and is one big reason the mayor's team was able to break out the champagne and sparklers just after midnight last Friday. They waged an impressive campaign to enlist grassroots support for pre-K, coupling it with labor union pressure and a bit of deft racial politics, enlisting black and Latino ministers and electeds. De Blasio scores a major victory on his signature policy proposal.

Yet the ease with which he dropped the tax demand, after insisting for months it was the only dependable source of revenue, makes it look even more like a transparent political ploy. And the mayor has long been plain about his belief that charter schools garner a disproportionate amount of attention. But he stumbled into brightening that spotlight and diminishing the city's power over the charters, which could be expensive in the short- and long-term — mayoral control over the larger public school system is up for renewal in 2015, and there's now precedent for weakening it. 

Cuomo, meanwhile, proved he's still very much in charge. He grabbed the political momentum in January by upping the ante on de Blasio and proposing statewide pre-K expansion. The governor stiff-armed the tax idea and awarded the mayor less pre-K money than he'd sought — and a lot less than the mayor wanted for after-school programs. 

His need to assert primacy in the relationship turned petty at times, but Cuomo showed his gift for seizing an opening: When de Blasio's Department of Education failed to connect the political dots and inflamed charter school activists by rejecting a handful of co-locations just as the pre-K wrangling was entering a crucial stage, Cuomo leapt to the defense of telegenic, high-achieving minority kids. He also didn't mind siding with the big-money donors who support the charter movement.

The supporting actors

No one played their role more effectively than Eva Moskowitz. She's gone from de Blasio campaign piñata to very-well-protected ward of the state. Cuomo and the legislature aren't simply going to bar de Blasio from charging charters rent — they're going to force the city to pay for better charter facilities. 

Shelly Silver, the eternal Democratic Assembly leader, quietly provided key advice to de Blasio, and seems to have gotten money to replace trailers at overcrowded schools in exchange for not objecting to the charter protections. 

Jeff Klein, the Democratic state Senate co-majority leader, got on board with de Blasio's plan early, and his ability to include $530 million for pre-K in the senate's preliminary budget helped raise the floor for the final number. Klein no doubt loves kids, but his support looked motivated as much by self-preservation: Progressive allies of de Blasio were threatening to mount a Democratic primary challenge to Klein if he didn't deliver. 

Epilogue

De Blasio and his team played their parts well; funding pre-K was never a sure thing. Yet one reason he was confident all along — and his quest wasn't as suspenseful as it might have been — is because the state is fairly flush. "In a rising economy, it's hard to have true losers in a budget," a mayoral ally says. "Everybody ends up getting something they want."

What de Blasio got is a big win, and a big pile of money. Now all he has to do is spend it wisely — a tale that won't generate easy headlines, but matters a great deal to thousands of four-year-olds.